As he surveyed the giants of baseball, Rick Wolff did what any father would do. He thought of his son.
Back then, Wolff massaged the egos of the best players in baseball as mental skills coach for the Cleveland Indians, back when the Indians were good.
It was spring in Arizona, and Wolff's mind was on the future. His son was 8. He asked his players _ who had fame, wealth and talent _ if they would want the same for their boy. They all answered the same way.
"Rick, I would never, ever expose my kid to the kind of craziness I went through," they said.
Wolff, who left his coaching career to lecture and write, told that story Thursday night to about 60 Little League parents who wanted instruction on how to best help kids in sports.
The audience at Plant High School looked like professionals who achieve _ and who want their children to achieve too. So, to help, the Tampa Bay Little League group and More Health, a nonprofit that teaches children about health, flew Wolff in from New York to talk to parents about how to behave.
Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting, has written 17 books on the subject, including Coaching for Dummies and Good Sports: The Concerned Parents Guide to Competitive Sports. And oh, he has raised three kids, including a 20-year-old son who plays baseball at Harvard, just like Dad did.
As Wolff spoke Thursday at the auditorium at Plant, the parents silently listened. When Wolff spoke about parents who grilled their kid after a game, and a few would laugh. They recognized the traits in themselves.
Talking to a child after a game is one of the worst things to do, Wolff said. It's one of the reasons that nearly 50 percent of children ages 5 to 12 surveyed don't want their parents to attend their games, he said.
"When we drop our kid off at Little League, one of the last things we say is go out and have fun," he said. "But what we are really saying is go out and be a star."
Kids pick up on the real meaning very quickly. And it's one reason so many want to quit.
Children notice when parents sit in the stands and tell their children how to play. Eye on the ball! Don't crowd the plate! That's it! Uh, uh, uh, don't round that base!
The children thought you wanted them to have fun, Wolff said. But the chanting really tells them they're being evaluated.
After the game, don't talk to children about the game. Kids, especially at the Little League age, have moved on. But the parent is doing the post-game analysis, Wolff said.
He suggested waiting a day to casually ask your child how they felt about the sport. And cushion the conversation by offering praise, he said.
"Your job is to be supportive, and to stick up for these kids," Wolff said.
Wolff asked the audience how many of them played baseball as kids.
A roomful of hands went up.
How many played pro ball?
How many played the majors?
How many parents told their kids about the mistakes they made _ the times they struck out with the bases loaded, the times they dropped the fly ball.
One person raised a hand.
"You have to let them know baseball is the most difficult game in the world," Wolff said. "You have to understand failure will be around you all the time."
Putting pressure on children at early ages seldom makes them better players. And he cited examples:
Michael Jordan, one of the greatest players in professional basketball, was cut from his high school team.
Basketball star Scottie Pippen was only 5 foot 11 as a high school senior. He got one college basketball scholarship _ they wanted him to be the team's equipment manager.
Slugger Sammy Sosa didn't start playing baseball until he was 14. His career hasn't suffered, Wolff said.
Try to make Little League teams as even as possible in skill levels. The goal should be teams that all have .500 records.
Instead of holding a draft, as most Little Leagues do, in which coaches try to out-scout the best 10-year-old in the League, do something anticompetitive. Get all the coaches together and create evenly-balanced teams, so that any team could play just as well as another. Then, let the coach decide who gets to coach the team by picking teams randomly from a hat.
He said this has been done successfully in many places.
When it comes time to choose all-stars, let the children decide by secret ballot, Wolff said.
"The kids know who the best players are," he said. "They don't need the parents to tell them who the stars are."
One parent raised his hand to ask Wolff how he could actually convince a Little League to take competition out.
He asked: What has to happen? Does there have to be crisis? Does some parent have to get arrested for throwing objects on the field before a Little League can change?
No, Wolff said.
"It just takes parents to say, this makes sense," he said.
The parent listened, but didn't say anything back.
Today, coincidentally, is draft day for the Tampa Bay Little League.
_ David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karpsptimes.com.
THE GOLDEN RULES
Sports psychology expert Rick Wolff offers five simple messages for adults involved in Little League:
1. Parents need to come to grips with one fact: Your childhood is over. Don't put your dreams on your children.
2. Listen to your children, don't lecture to them. Let them tell you what they enjoy about sports.
3. Coaches: Remember, every child wants to play during games as much as possible. As a coach, it's your job to make sure that happens.
4. Yelling and screaming discourages a child's desire to do well in sports. No one wants to be criticized, especially when playing a difficult game.
5. Baseball is a hard. Remember to tell your child how tough baseball was for you.